- Contributed by
- Stan Hedges
- People in story:
- Rosetta Hedges, Kenneth Hedges, Sidney Hedges, Stanley Hedges
- Location of story:
- London / Somerset
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 31 January 2005
My two elder brothers with me in the fields behind The Manor House in Wedmore, Summer 1940.
(An Evacuation Story)
East Ham, London, September, 1939
I SAT on the draining board that morning having my knees scrubbed just like any other day. But I was uneasy. Mum wasn't her usual self, and I could feel it. She wasn't singing. She'd been humming for a while, humming softly to herself as she ran the flannel slowly over my legs, but now she'd fallen silent again.
'Where are we going?' I asked.
'You're going on a big train. Aren't you lucky? Going for a long ride. You're all going; the whole school.'
'Are you coming?'
'No, Mum's can't come.'
'Why can't they?'
'Because we're too old.'
'But why are we going?'
'Because of the bombs.'
'I ain't seen no bombs.'
'But there will be; soon. Shall we sing a song?'
'No. You sing.'
'You know -- my favourite.'
And so she did.
'Any umberellas, any umberellas to mend today? Pitter patter, pitter patter, here comes the rain…'
East Ham's High Street North runs between Romford Road in the north and Barking Road in the south, bisected in the middle by the railway station, where the tube and Fenchurch Street to Southend lines run beneath a bridge over the road, making it the highest point for miles around. Within the hour we'd joined an enormous queue straggling down from the entrance. The crowd of children, parents and grandparents may have stretched four or five deep for two hundred yards, every child tagged with a brown label attached to coat or jacket, indicating name, next-of-kin and home address. Some were already in tears, and so were a good many Mums.
To assist the police, several teachers acted as marshals, trying to keep people out of the road, while Mr Green, the headmaster, strolled up and down the kerb doing what he could for public moral, cajoling us with things like: 'Come on now; mustn't let old Hitler think we're scared, must we? Anyway, we'll all be home by Christmas. All be over in no time. No one's beaten us in a thousand years. You don't seriously think Hitler and his Nazi thugs are the ones to do it, do you? Not likely! Come on now, stiff upper lip; chin up!'
Old Charlie was there of course, sitting cross-legged on the ground against the station wall, accordion between his legs, still playing all the latest songs. 'Roll out the barrel, we'll have a barrel of fun. Zim, zoom, tarrarel, we've got the blues on the run…' and 'Run rabbit, run rabbit, run, run, run…' Blind from birth, he was grey-haired and dumpy, a little man with a large head, having no eyes except for the whites. Until you were used to him he was scary to look at. But he played so well I could listen to him all day. When we were out shopping, I always asked Mum if we had a penny to put in his cap. She'd give me one if she could spare it, and I'd drop it in and feel good all day. The first time I did he looked up with his unseeing eyes and thanked me in a gravelly voice, 'Gawd bless yer, guvnor! Gawd bless yer!' I replied I wasn't a guvnor, just a little boy. 'Then Gawd bless yer, son! Gawd bless yer! May you live long an' 'appy!'
The organ grinder was just down the road with his tiny capuchin monkey, still churning out old music hall favourites: 'Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do…' and 'My old man said follow the van, and don't dilly dally on the way…' and Champagne Charlie is me name. Champagne drinking is me game. There's no finer drink than fizz, fizz, fizz; I'd drink every drop there is, is, is…' Quite a few were joining in with the choruses. It was all rather cheerful, really, except for seeing so many people crying. The organ-grinder was very old. He had filthy long grey hair, and must have been semi-destitute, for he always dressed in the same old rags. The monkey fascinated me most, being trained to bite on each penny he was offered to make sure it was genuine before handing it over to his master. He made people smile.
I was three months short of my fifth birthday; Sid, my elder brother by four years, was nine. We'd been taken to Woolworth's the day before to get kitted out for the journey. For the first time in years we sported new clothes, each having a grey flannel suit with short trousers, white shirts and woollen ties. We also had new white ankle socks -- which I must keep clean at all costs. 'Must look smart when you get there. I'm not having them talk about me.'
Ken, my eldest brother, (though I wasn't aware of it that day because he'd been brought up by our grandparents until this time), was eleven, and must have joined us soon after we arrived. He was dressed much the same as Sid and me, and clutching a small battered old suitcase under one arm. But this was very bad news; very bad news indeed. I hadn't expected him to be there. This big mate of Sid's who lived with Gran and Granddad was definitely not one of my favourite people, nor was I in any doubt that the feeling was mutual. Sid was in charge of our suitcase, another new acquisition from Woolworth's, one of their cardboard specials. It was hardly bigger than a briefcase, but as we'd never possessed underclothes, or a top coat, and usually wore whatever clothes we had until they were past redemption (when they were usually replenished from the second-hand stall in the market), it was adequate enough for the few things Mum had mustered together. When I come to think of it, most of the space must have been taken up with our sandwiches and drinks for the journey.
'D'you hear me?' she repeated. 'No scruffing about on the floor in them socks.'
The train that was to take us into London arrived; our actual destination thereafter being still unknown. Very slowly, the queue began to move towards the entrance amid renewed floods of tears, and as kids reached the entrance their parents hugged them for the last time before stepping aside to wave goodbye until they'd shuffled slowly over the dusty floorboards of the station foyer and out of sight. When it was our turn, Mum took out that wretched handkerchief of hers and spat on it yet again, then swiped my nose and mouth for the last time. 'You'd better hold on to it,' she said, stuffing it inside my pocket. 'Try and keep your face clean, at least. Mustn't have them talking about us, must we?' I received my last hug. She stood back, and the three of us took our turn shuffling through the lobby while she waited st the entrance. Each time I looked back she was waving. I still see her waving, standing there on tip-toe, waving.
I think it was then I realised I might never see her again, and for the first time I too began to cry. The air was now thick with the dust thrown up by hundreds of shuffling feet, so that, as the tears trickled down they must have joined with the grime in carving jagged white rivulets down to my chin. For once inside our carriage, Ken told me to pack it in and use Mum's hanky to sort my face out, or else... So I did, but that only made things worse. It smelled of Mum's face powder. When I put it to my face, I could smell her; she was there again, with me, and I wanted her. After that, every now and then I'd put it to my nose and be home again, on the draining board, listening to her singing. 'Any umberellas, any umberellas to mend today…?'
Though I can't remember the details, we must have joined another train at Paddington, because my next memory of that long day's journey is of green rolling hills and countryside. By then we knew we were on our way to Somerset, in the West of England. And something must have happened to cheer me up because, along with a hundred others, I was leaning out of the window, smiling and laughing, totally amazed at the smoke and sparks billowing away over the fields and hills, slowly dissipating until they miraculously vanished into thin air. I was thrilled by ever new thing I could see: the ground racing past, the cows in the fields, the farms, the little yellow-stone cottages dotted here and there, and villages with thatched roofs, and trees, and streams, and it was all… oh…. so wonderful; so very, very wonderful! Looking up and down the train, children hung from every window, hair streaming, eyes half shut against the wind, many waving handkerchiefs as flags. I took out Mum's and likewise offered it to the wind. It tugged and tugged in my hand, but I held fast. In the carriage behind was a black-haired boy about my own age grinning his head off. 'Let go and I'll catch it!' he yelled. How could I be so foolish? Why did I do it? At that age we believe everything we are told; be it bogey men, or aunts who declare they'll cut off our tails if we're naughty, or mums who say they're going to go through the roof any minute, for it's so much wiser to believe them. And if a boy says he'll catch it, then he will. Without a second thought I let go… And with the hanky gone, floating away with the billowing clouds of steam and smoke; so Mum, too, was gone; finally gone. Gone for ever! So I cried again. But Ken said if I didn't stop crying he'd biff me.
Altogether, with all the delays while we waited in sidings making way for munitions trains or troop trains, the total journey took ten hours or so. It was growing dark when we finally arrived at our destination. I woke to a porter bellowing, 'Cheddar! Cheddar! Alight here for Cheddar Gorge!' The name sounded familiar, though I couldn't think why. The teachers began walking up and down the corridor telling us to collect our things -- quietly -- make an orderly exit and wait on the platform. 'No need to panic! Just collect your things and wait quietly on the platform. No need to rush. We'll all get off in time if we just act calmly and sensibly.' Of course, after that it was pandemonium. Some stepped out, some ran out, while others fell out. In no time, the platform looked like a war zone, bodies lying everywhere after tripping over suitcases left, right and centre. It was scary. I tried holding onto Sid's hand, but he shook me off. 'Stop it! Stop being a sissy!'
Those who weren't being billeted in Cheddar itself were to be billeted in the surrounding villages. To accommodate these, a row of single-decker buses stood outside the station with the names of various villages pasted to the windscreens. It took ages, but along with thirty or so others, we three eventually bundled into one bound for a place called 'Wedmore'.
It was quite dark by the time we reached the village hall. Inside, it seemed gloomy and vast, being lit only by a row of large oil-lamps hanging down the centre of the room. Rows of empty chairs filled the centre of the hall, while the aisles on both sides were packed with men and women. They must have been waiting some time to collect their evacuees, for the air was blue with smoke, quite reminding me of Granny Treloar's parlour. At the far end stood a raised platform upon which two ladies sat at each side of a small table. One was Mrs Burrows, the billeting officer who'd travelled down with us from London, while the other was an elegant lady in her mid-forties. She had a kind face, greying blonde hair, and was dressed all in black.
The villagers had kindly provided refreshments. And very welcome they were too. By noon, most of us had polished off whatever food we had, and so had travelled the last several hours without food or drink. We were told to collect our sandwiches and a beaker of lemonade, then take up our seats, starting nearest the stage. We three were very near the head of the queue, so we sat very near the front, looking up at the two ladies. When things had quietened down, the elegant lady got to her feet. She seemed very tall, and I thought her face handsome; she had the kindest, clear blue eyes I'd ever seen. They sparkled, glinting each time they caught the light. The phrase, 'an English Rose' comes to mind.
'Good evening everyone, and welcome to Wedmore. We all hope you'll be very happy here. My name is Mrs Pitcairn, and since my husband died it falls to me as Lady of the Manor to see that every one of you finds a safe, warm home to live in while you're here.'
Mrs Burrows then took over, and the next hour was surreal. A kind of auction, and one which I found utterly fascinating.
'Now here's a sweet little girl. Who'll take this lovely little girl?'
Huh! There was never going to be any trouble placing one 'sweet little girl'! The women fell over themselves to take her! And very soon all the single kids had been snapped up and were on their way to new homes. Then it came to the pairs of siblings. They didn't go too badly either, though Mrs Pitcairn had to use persuasion here and there. Some farmers didn't mind having two boys because they could always find light work for them when they weren't at school. Similarly with their wives, girls could be very useful around the house. But others were a bit shy of having a couple of rowdy boys about the place.
When it came to our turn a few offered to take one, or even two at a pinch, but no one wanted three, not all in a lump. Mrs Pitcairn was adamant, however. On no account would she allow three brothers to be separated. So, as no one would contemplate taking on three harem-scarem, snotty-nosed little cockneys, the hall began to empty, leaving us three sitting alone.
Wearing a glum face, Mrs Pitcairn stepped down and came over to us.
'Oh dear, boys, you must be feeling rather let down. I'm afraid there's nothing for it but to come along with me. How would you like that?'
I think the smile I gave must easily have been an insignificant distance from each ear, to borrow an expression from Thomas Hardy.
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